Sustainable development

History and evolution of the concept 1

Authored by: Delyse Springett , Michael Redclift

The Routledge Companion to Environmental Planning

Print publication date:  August  2019
Online publication date:  July  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138894808
eBook ISBN: 9781315179780
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This chapter unpacks the highly influential concept of sustainability, whose meanings have been subject to much contestations among political actors at all levels from the local to international bodies. The chapter traces its different interpretations and provides a detailed account of the international contestations over its meanings and implementations. It focuses on the political economy of environmental conditions and highlights the connection between capitalist liberal markets and cultures and social injustices and environmental crisis. Emphasising the inextricable link between social and environmental responsibilities, the chapter shows how power and knowledge are used to exploit both nature and people. A key theme is the problematisation of the discursive dominance of Global North over Global South. It is argued that the root causes of environmental as well as social problems are economic and cultural globalisation of neoliberal conceptual forces. The chapter highlights the dangers of reifying concepts such as sustainable development in and through environmental planning processes and practices.

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Sustainable development

When the Club of Rome coined the term, ‘The Global Problèmatique’ for the environmental crisis of the early 1970s, it was intended to capture the connections and dynamic interactions between the various aspects of the problem – those linkages and knock-on effects that reverberate throughout the world (Reid, 1995; Rockström et al., 2009). The institutional roots of the crisis, with its social, political and economic dimensions and the associated cultural, spiritual and intellectual implications, can be traced back to the emergence of the capitalist economy from the scientific and industrial revolutions in England (Merchant, 1980; Spretnak and Capra, 1985; Carley and Christie, 1992). Central to the changing worldview was the shift in attitudes towards nature wrought by the ideology of the Enlightenment, leading to nature’s ‘disenchantment’ and the dissipating of its power over physical and spiritual aspects of human life (Merchant, 1980; Eckersley, 1992). The new scientific paradigm at the core of the Enlightenment that transformed the human-nature relationship, combined with the capitalist model of production and consumption, produced a degree of change and scale of degradation not previously possible (Merchant, 1980). Along with this, the Northern process of domination, effected through colonisation in pursuit of resources, markets and land – and later extended through the globalisation of trade, technological expertise, the money market and communications (The Ecologist, 1993) – eventually resulted in global impacts on nature and the lives of people. Two decades ago, Vitousek et al. (1986, p. 1861) stated: ‘any clear dichotomy between pristine ecosystems and human-altered areas that may have existed in the past has vanished’. Today, the Earth is beyond the point where boundaries can be ascribed to environmental problems and the associated social impacts. However, the sharing of the impacts is not equitable, as the eco-justice movement underlines: the poor disproportionately shoulder the consequences of environmental degradation (Dobson, 1998; Agyeman et al., 2003; Martínez-Alier, 2003). These social and environmental impacts and the struggle to deal with them led to the coining of the concept of ‘sustainable development’ and its appearance on the international agenda in the 1970s (Carley and Christie, 1992).

The international contestation of sustainable development

The environmental movement of the 1960s was based largely upon a concept of nature that was scientifically constructed by the North (Hays, 1959; Evernden, 1992; Eder, 1996a), chiefly rooted in the earlier American ‘conservation’ movement and perceived by O’Riordan (1981) as organised resource exploitation and regional economic planning. As the debate became affected by ideas and concepts from the field of development (Redclift, 1987; Adams, 1990; Goulet, 1995a, 1995b), the dialectics of ‘environment and development’ produced a new discourse, though the North continued to identify the problems and solutions, chiefly from a ‘conservation’ perspective. The adoption of the term, ‘sustainable development’, brings with it epistemological and practical problems that have led to strong contestation, but it signifies a transformation being made in the environmental discourse. The contestation – even repudiation – of the term has not excluded its capture by some groups to become a key concept in the rhetoric of ‘green’ business. Against negative perceptions, some authors always understood the concept as capable of emancipating more democratic and inclusive approaches to living with nature and each other (O’Connor, J., 1998), while others saw it as legitimating perspectives from the South (Redclift, 1987; Jacobs, 1991).

The power of Northern hegemony met some resistance from the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), which included a large number of Commissioners from the South. The Brundtland Report (1987) placed the discourse much more firmly in the economic and political context of international development. Efforts to limit the agenda to ‘environmental’ matters and a critique of conventional environmental management as practised in developed countries were resisted (Redclift, 1987). The preliminary consultative process itself provided something of a model of democratic participation (Redclift, 1987), and the Report was altogether more ‘political’ and radical than the Stockholm Declaration (1972) or the World Conservation Strategy (1980).

Despite the criticisms, the Commission presented a political vision of sustainable development: it called for institutional restructuring of national politics, economics, bureaucracy, social systems of production and technologies, requiring a new system of international trade and finance. It was, perhaps, the neo-Marxist movement, newly taking the environment into its consideration in the late 1980s, that best perceived the potential the Report brought for significantly new ways of doing things within a revised capitalist framework.

The Report did, however, offer a challenge to traditional sources of power, of whatever hue, by lifting the debate from a focus on scarcity and counteracting ‘the sectoral bias and compartmentalism’ that had marked much of the work on the environment (Redclift, 1992, p. 33). The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED, 1992), the agenda of which arose largely from the Brundtland Report, demonstrated what may happen to any serious challenge to traditional forms of power. The Conference potentially represented a ‘turning point’ (Gore, 1992; Frankel, 1998) and the opportunity to address the worsening socio-economic disparities between North and South along with the environmental degradation associated with these. Opinions on the achievements of UNCED are divided between confidence in significant progress being made and the belief that the Conference was a failure, even a charade stage-managed by business. The UNCED process revealed that it served powerful interests. The critique of the process and the Alternative Treaties produced by an international consortium of NGOs reveal the key ‘silences’ and ‘non-decision making’ that characterised the formal agenda.

However, since UNCED, the balance of power has shifted. While the struggle at that and earlier fora can be seen as being between ‘North’ and ‘South’, the gap today is also between the poorest countries, with no resources to attract investment, the developed countries and the new ‘rapidly developing’ economies.

The discourse of sustainable development: problematising the concept

This brief genealogy of sustainable development, the contestation for the concept at international level and the changing realities that the progress of globalisation brings with it explain the power and hegemony exercised in the struggle for ‘ownership’ and definition of the concept. It discloses why the discourse has been narrowly controlled and why a dialectical, relational approach is needed to open up the still evolving process (Harvey, 1996). A more dialectical approach might produce not a two-dimensional, undialectic ‘map’ but something more discursive, akin to multi-dimensional ‘cognitive mapping’ of the many discourses of sustainable development. The importance of maintaining discursivity is that it is the discourse that is ‘creating’ sustainable development (Foucault, 1972); the process is a dynamic one, where the concept should not be allowed to become a naturalised, ‘reified’ thing (Foucault, 1972). It comes down to a struggle between discursivity and control, an inherently ideological process (Redclift, 1996), which is witnessed at the international level. The international literature reflects the ‘stakes in the ground’ of specific groups: economics, ecology, environmental management, environmental philosophy, the claims and contestations of academic disciplines; views from the South and political and corporate positions all reveal the political, ideological, epistemological, discipline-based and philosophical approaches that compete for legitimacy. Broadly speaking, these fall into three major camps: ecology-centred, market-based and neo-Marxist approaches. From a critical perspective, sustainable development is perceived not only as a social construct but a multi-constructed and strongly contested concept (Eder, 1996b; Dobson, 1996) that is political and radical (Jacobs, 1991). The dismissive charge of ‘vacuousness’ that has been made needs to be explored to discover whether such ‘vacuity’ is used as an obfuscatory gag on the radical aspects of the concept – a way of excluding competing views in the struggle for ownership – or whether the concept is, indeed, vapid jargon.

‘Sustainable development’ or ‘sustainability’?

The contestation for the definition of sustainable development is made additionally problematic by the ways in which the terms ‘sustainable development’ and ‘sustainability’ have been counter-posed (Dobson, 1998). For purists, the terms are almost diametrically opposed; sustainable development represents a threat to sustainability on account of its ‘dangerous liaison’, particularly since the Brundtland Report, with economic growth. This liaison smacks of positivism and modernism since the concept is seen as emanating from the very cultural and economic sources that gave rise to ‘unsustainability’. Much of the concern focuses upon Northern domination and the assumption that (Northern) ‘management’ can solve the sustainable development dilemma. The increasing domination and ‘eco-cracy’ (Gudynas, 1993) stem from the fact that, institutionally, we have bought into an all-engulfing management paradigm (Redclift, 1996) that introduces new institutional structures for environmental management that give scant attention to the actual processes through which the environment has been transformed and commodified. Against this is the body of opinion that believes that sustainable development encapsulates the understanding of the need for radical change to a different way of life – what has been characterised as a ‘painfully difficult turn towards material simplicity and spiritual richness’ (Worster, 1993, p. 132). In this sense, it is a strongly normative goal imbued with values and implying that value judgements need to be made (Redclift, 1996): a social goal for guiding behaviour at the individual, institutional, national and global levels. This shifts sustainable development out of the paradigm of management where business locates the concept (Springett, 2003, 2006). It also confirms it as a political concept. It is not surprising, then, that discussions of sustainable development generally ignore the epistemological dimension of the construct, the assumption being that Northern knowledge and expertise have developed a ‘universal epistemology’, whereas, in reality, the ubiquity of Northern science succeeds in fragmenting the knowledge of the South (Redclift, 1991), even though this knowledge may be increasingly important in terms of sustainable development.

Some argue that the ambiguous theoretical basis of sustainable development and the lack of consensus about its meaning make its implementation almost impossible: there are conceptual, political and ethical dilemmas in recasting ‘development’ activities as ‘sustainable’, and then declaring this a new paradigm for human interaction with the environment (Sneddon, 2000). In its mainstream guise, sustainable development is in danger of privileging global environmental problems and global (i.e. ‘powerful local’, Shiva, 1993) institutions which are largely the province of the North and which choose to focus, for example, on the problem of poverty rather than the origins of poverty-production. This curtails the ability of the concept to act as an instrument for a ‘transformative politics’, whereas the concept of ‘sustainability’ is seen as not having been co-opted into the unilinear, mainstream hegemony to the same degree (Adams, 1995; Sunderlin, 1995; Sneddon, 2000). It ‘carries less political baggage’ (Paehlke, 1999), sparing us some of the problems associated with sustainable development. It is seen as having a ‘multiplicity’ of meanings, for example, leaving open the question of GNP (Paehlke, 1999, p. 243), whereas sustainable development assumes that growth is possible and desirable. Both terms view the economy, the environment and society as inevitably bound up with each other, but sustainability does not assume that economic growth is essential, nor that economic growth will inevitably result in net environmental harm (Paehlke, 1999).

However, like sustainable development, sustainability has a ‘complex conceptual structure’ (Paehlke, 1999, p. 246), and is also deplored for its ‘vague, ill-defined character’ (Becker et al., 1999). It is also seen as introducing ‘normative commitments to the development problematic’, calling for justice for future generations and implying that the economic process should be ‘subordinated to social and ecological constraints’ (Becker et al., 1999, p. 5). This strongly accords with the conception of sustainable development propounded by Redclift and others. Despite the calls for sustainability to be extricated from the sustainable development discourse – or to replace it – there is also evidence that a number of writers have in mind an all-embracing concept that eschews neo-classical economics, calls for better understanding and treatment of nature, demands social equity and eco-justice based on a less instrumental understanding of democracy, and that this overall conception of ‘the good life’ is sometimes referred to as ‘sustainability’ and sometimes as ‘sustainable development’.

A question of definition: competing certainties versus discourse

Part of the ‘problem’ of sustainable development is the contestation for its definition: so intrinsically political is the concept that it elicits attempts by widely disparate vested interests to frame its meaning. The power of definition, and of determining the language that characterises a concept, are seminal ways of staking and holding claims to domination (Beder, 1996; Livesey, 2001; Ralston Saul, 2001), while dismissing that concept on account of its lack of clear definition also restricts any inherent potential for change from being liberated. The debate on sustainable development has ranged from a call for consensus on a definition that can lead to action (Carpenter, 1994) to proposals that the term be abandoned on account of its ‘vacuity’ and ‘malleability’ (Lélé, 1991; Sneddon, 2000) and its lack of ‘objective analysis’ (Reboratti, 1999). Redclift notes that it is ‘about meeting human needs, or maintaining economic growth, or conserving natural capital, or all three’ (Redclift, 1999, p. 37, emphasis added). The alleged vagueness and ill-defined character of the concept (Becker and Jahn, 1999) have been attributed both to a lack of theoretical underpinning and to the ways in which the concept itself was constructed and framed (Sneddon, 2000). Built upon the dual and opposing concepts of ecological sustainability and development/growth, the complexity of the construct promulgates not only different and conflicting theoretical perspectives but also the ensuing ‘semantic confusion’ that arises from these (Sachs, 1999). Its conceptual capacity and the normative and political dimensions of the concept only increase the ambiguity; it has come to be used as though it has ‘universal and temporal validity’ and general acceptance (Reboratti, 1999, p. 209; see also Smith and Warr, 1991), while, at the same time, its lack of objective analysis has led to its being dismissed as a cliché.

Some perceive the ideological repackaging of the discourse of development planning in the 1980s as a cynical attempt to construct a ‘green cover’ for business-as-usual and the ongoing exploitation of people and resources (Willers, 1994; Adams, 1995; Escobar, 1995): a political cover for otherwise unacceptable corporate practices (Paehlke, 1999) and an attempt at ‘semantic reconciliation’ of the irreconcilable ideologies of ecological transformation and economic growth. The lack of clear definition of sustainable development – its ‘opaqueness’ – is also seen as symptomatic of this underlying ideological struggle. However, it might also be argued that the failure to deliver a tight definition reflects the futility – even the danger – of trying to capture a complex construct in simplistic terms. Perhaps the most serious aspect of the problematic for ‘sustainable development’ is that the ambiguous theoretical basis and lack of context-specificity and clarity (Sneddon, 2000) disable implementation of a concept that does not have time on its side (Redclift, 1987; Lélé, 1991; Frazier, 1997). The dismissal of the concept as a force for power has been widespread: its ‘populism’ is seen as resulting in confusion and ambiguity (Lélé, 1991; Redclift, 1991; Reboratti, 1999), reducing it to a ‘quasi-rhetorical term’ and a ‘must word’ (Reboratti, 1999). Lack of academic rigour in the initial formulation of the term has relegated it to the popular status of a ‘catch-phrase’ (Lélé, 1991), with an accompanying ‘fuzziness’ surrounding its definition and interpretation. Indiscriminate use of the term disguises the fact that it is ‘hard to pin down and convert into a useful methodological tool’ (Reboratti, 1999); even the ‘relatively acceptable’ WCED needs-based definition focusing on inter- and intra-generational equity is dismissed as ‘wishful thinking rather than conceptual framework’ (Reboratti, 1999, p. 213). It has lost further credibility and meaning on account of the ease with which it has ‘passed into the everyday language of politicians’ (O’Brien, 1991) with the consequent danger of losing all meaning, though it has not impacted substantially on the platforms of political parties (Reboratti, 1999). The other cause of scepticism is the ease with which the construct has been colonised by business and become part of its own rhetoric.

The debate reflects the contestation by those who aim to neutralise the potentially political role that lies at the heart of the concept. This prevents serious change from taking place (Lélé, 1991) and disempowers its radical core of meaning. The general use of the concept indicates a poor understanding of the institutional causes of poverty and environmental degradation, confusion about the role of economic growth, lack of clarity about the concepts of sustainability and participation, with all of this constraining the democratic force of the concept (Lélé, 1991). It has also been argued that the vagueness surrounding the concept forms part of its ‘appeal’ (Redclift, 1991).

Such ‘vagueness’ may be a politically expedient aspect of the concept not only to play down its potential power but also to emancipate that power (Lélé, 1991): a more specific definition might represent a reactionary force, a means of control that restricts discourse (Ralston Saul, 2001). In other words, the ‘ambiguity’ of the concept may be its central virtue and strength, inviting discourse (Redclift, 1987; O’Riordan, 1993; Wilbanks, 1994).

Dryzek (2000) advocates not a definition but a discourse about sustainable development that is shaped by a shared set assumptions and capabilities and embedded in enabling language. Discourses are social and act as sources of order by coordinating the behaviour of individuals who subscribe to them. At the heart of the debate over sustainable development lies the question of power and, specifically, the potential for political and structural change that is central to a radical interpretation of the concept (Springett, 2005). Its political significance is underlined in part by the fact that it has been generated through the power of Northern institutions, as well as academic debate (Reboratti, 1999). At the same time, the lack of specificity clouds its normative role as a social goal which can only be achieved through examination of our own behaviour (Redclift, 1996), not ‘fixed’ by management and technology. For Redclift, it is a policy objective rather than a methodology – an overarching concept and ‘unapologetically normative’ (Redclift, 1996, p. 37), calling for a more ‘human-focused’ approach. The discourse is full of contradictions. Borrowing from the natural and social sciences, the concept is seen as a major constraint on human ‘progress’ – the price the conventional growth model must pay if the ‘biospheric imperative’ is ignored, calling for different technologies and more realistic assessment of environmental losses. Another contradiction concerns the implications of ‘human progress’ for nature, with people from different ideological persuasions calling for an examination of the ‘ends’ as well as the ‘means’ of development. Central to the problem are the unanswered questions about recovery of our control over consumption (Redclift, 1996). The Brundtland Report’s focus on ‘needs’ still left unanswered questions about the needs of future generations, the changes in needs, the ways in which development contributes to or creates needs, and how needs are defined in different cultures. No answer has been found to the question of what is to be sustained (Redclift, 1999, p. 60). Redclift defines the key question as being distributive, calling for a redefinition that would incorporate future population growth and the ensuing demands on the environment, as well as necessary changes in individual consumption patterns. The discourse rarely stops to examine those real needs (largely of the South and the poor of the North) that are consistently not being met (Durning, 1992; Elkington, 1995), and this brings the heart of the problem back to the materiality of the environmental experience without which culture itself cannot exist (Ingold, 1992). Concepts of nature are always cultural statements (Beinart and Coates, 1995; Redclift, 1999), and the ‘environment’ is the creation of human activity, socially constructed like all discourses and based upon ecological principles that are themselves constructs of a science that is part of human culture (Redclift, 1999, p. 67).

One danger of the contestation over definition is that it will deflect attention from these unanswered questions that signify the need for an essentially political project to bring about changes in human behaviour. Competition over definition helps to obscure the more basic need to redefine the roles and functions of public and private institutions that support unsustainable behaviour – not only business but political and administrative institutions. It is a political act to contest the definition of sustainable development, and the endless contestation may cover up embarrassing questions such as government unwillingness to promote, for example, major fiscal or financial reforms, to significantly decentralise power or to recognise that scientific knowledge as a basis for ‘rational’ decision making has limitations. In a sense, the debate about definition can be seen as a displacement activity or a deliberate barrier to the recognition of the sustainable development imperative. Contemporary market economies have ideological mechanisms for silencing opposition (O’Connor, J., 1994), one being the act of ‘semiotic conquest’ of language and agenda. Endless contestation deflects the radical core of sustainable development into a confusing, de-energising struggle for ‘meaning’ rather than action. In terms of business, the capitalist appropriation of nature and communities is seen by O’Connor as attempting to find its own legitimation through the ‘sinister double play’ of the rhetoric of ‘greened growth’ as opposed to a focus on sustainable development. Radical constructions of sustainable development view it as a potentially energising force in its own right (Redclift, 1987; Dovers, 1989; O’Connor, M., 1994; O’Riordan and Voisey, 1997), with the potential to create important social change, but calling for a myriad of institutional changes that are not necessarily promoted by the sustainable development agenda. This radical view suggests that many strategies will be employed to obscure or dilute that power, not least by capitalist business itself.

For social change to take place, there needs to be, not a ‘definition’, but some consensus about the core meaning of the term and the moral imperative it offers for ‘the good life’. This is not easy when the concept is viewed as propping up the fundamental processes of capitalist exploitation (Jacobs, 1999, p. 22). The demand for a cut-and-dried – and, therefore, almost inevitably ‘technological’ – definition raises the spectre of ‘reason’ metamorphosing into ‘technology’ (Horkheimer, 1947), already seen in the domination and instrumentalisation of nature. A dialectical approach to sustainable development, not pinned to a specific definition, would be more likely to question the instrumentalist epistemic shift of science in the 1920s, the rapid growth of big bureaucracies in public administration, humanity’s colonisation of nature through technology and the capitalist management of the administrative apparatus of the state that worked together to create the need for the construct. Such dialectical discourse would be more likely to unearth the origins of the term, and the archaeology of the institutional infrastructure that supports these systems. Shifting from ‘definition’ to ‘discourse’ might elevate the power of sustainable development as a ‘site of political contest’, the source of a new political worldview that contests the status quo (Jacobs, 1999). It would suggest that sustainable development may become part of the deliberative turn to a more discursive theory of democracy (Dryzek, 2000), whereby, through a process of dialectical discourse, sustainable development could contribute to a new, more inclusive theory of ‘the good life’. Inherent in such a theory would be considerations of environment, equity and ethical issues – factors it is difficult to ‘value’.

The areas of core meaning that characterise the belief in the political power of sustainable development, as identified by Jacobs (1991), are:

  • The entrenchment of environmental considerations in economic policy making;
  • A commitment to equity;
  • An appreciation that ‘development’ is wider than growth.
Based on this, any interpretation implies change for economic policy and exposes the additional conflict that sustainable development is the beginning, not the end, of the debate: it provides a ‘common currency’, bringing together conflicting vocabularies to a common, though contested, one (Jacobs, 1999). The focus on social equity, global justice and human rights presents a constructivist interpretation based on human relations, culture and politics (Lash et al., 1996). This moves away from the major response since Brundtland focused on ‘managing’ the Earth through technological expertise, and the framing of the concept by powerful groups of the North (Becker, 1999). Nevertheless, much of the debate has continued to focus on ‘definition’ rather than imperatives, and the business incursion into the debate has increased the focus on both definition and ‘management’.

Sustainable development: an oxymoron?

Polanyi (1967) stressed that economic rationalism, in the strict sense, does not answer questions of motivations and valuations of a moral and practical order. Yet the compromise constructed between sustainable development and economic growth suggests that equity, conservation and economic growth, while uncomfortable companions, are not incompatible (Jacobs, 1991). Opponents view this as ‘a fatal co-option’ into technocentric management designed not to disturb the power processes of the growth economy and capitalist exploitation (Reboratti, 1999, p. 22). Sustainable development has become part of the historical process linked to economics and political structures, transformed both existentially and by economic growth but inextricably linked with the expansion and contraction of the world economic system (Redclift, 1987). However, it calls for a competing paradigm that breaks with the linear model of growth and accumulation. This would be more inclusive, with economic forces seen as related to the behaviour of social classes and the role of the state in accumulation. The social and environmental impacts of capitalist development would not be regarded as beyond the aegis of market economics; they would no longer be permitted as ‘externalities borne chiefly by those without power, and which now need to be internalized within the economic model’ (Redclift, 1987, p. 13). By strengthening the emphasis upon human need, the Brundtland Report itself provided an opportunity for a radical shift away from an economics epistemologically predisposed to a modernist, reductionist view of resources and exchange value (Norgaard, 1985). Nevertheless, it is a ‘dangerous liaison’ (Sachs, 1991), an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable (Benton, 1999). It can be read as appropriation of the agenda of environmental responsibility and social justice by economists, still reliant upon economic instruments for environmental protection; and no more than a vehicle for ‘free market environmentalism’ dominated by neo-classical concepts for allocating resources (Beder, 1996, p. 89). International agencies such as the OECD and fora such as UNCED have favoured such ideologically-based market solutions; but others see it as resulting in economic valuation that is another kind of ‘semiotic conquest’ (O’Connor, J., 1994), converting ecological entity to ‘natural capital’ and placing it on a par with other forms of capital.

It seems improbable that any agreement about sustainable development that adheres to the core themes identified in this chapter can be based on current global, cultural and political tradition (Reboratti, 1999). Rather, it needs a new social covenant and a new set of ‘rules’, including economic rules and ways of thinking about growth. For example, instead of following the neo-liberal theory of the free play of markets as the system of economic regulation, economic activity would be re-located within society (Gowdy, 1999). An emancipatory shift of this kind might mean learning from the complex social systems that have been sustained for long periods of time by people in developing nations, requiring a powerfully different conception of the role of economics in creating the ‘good life’.


This chapter is abstracted from Springett, D. and Redclift, M. (2015) ‘Sustainable development: history and evolution of the concept’, in M. Redclift and D. Springett, D. (eds.) Routledge international handbook of sustainable development. London: Routledge, pp 3–38.


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